During Mike D’Antoni’s halcyon days in Phoenix the Suns thrived with undersized frontcourt players who were more athletic and skilled than the players guarding them. Marion and Stoudemire, playing the 4 and 5 respectively, enjoyed a mismatch on the offensive end nearly every night. In the context of the Suns fast paced game and pick-and-roll heavy sets the two became almost impossible to defend. Surround them with lights out shooters and you have an offense that defined an era.
In New York this season, D’Antoni is now running the same sets and has a PG and the surrounding personnel that would seem well suited to make them hum, yet this morning the Knicks find themselves tied for 23rd in offensive efficiency. Even with Lin taking over at PG over the last nine games (and taking the league by storm), the Knicks have improved their performance somewhat but are far from an elite offense. During this run the Knicks have been winning games largely at the defensive end.
The problems, when they’ve cropped up during the Lin era, have boiled down to a lack of space and shooting. Until recently, the lack of shooting was largely due to the fact that the Knicks didn’t have any shooters. That isn’t the case anymore, what with Novak’s emergence and the team having added JR Smith. There should be plenty of shooting now and if those guys make shots that should certainly help space the floor. And with Carmelo Anthony returning from injury, the Knicks are adding another elite offensive weapon to what’s become an impressive stable.
Another explanation for the spacing issues, though, is that the Knicks are effectively playing two centers at the same time and the issues this creates are only exacerbated in D’Antoni’s system. Yes, Amar’e is listed as a PF but in this offense he has the skillset of a 5. And the fact that he can’t hit an 18 footer this season–a shot that was automatic for him just last year–has only made the situation worse. Amar’e is basically lost at moment, relegated to second screener status and proving largely incapable of punishing the defense for helping off him on the Lin/Chandler pick and roll.
The good news is that there’s a potential solution. The better news is that it can already be found on the Knicks roster–no moves need to be made. The bad news is that it creates a host of new (and even bigger) problems.
The possible solution is to play Melo at the 4 in a quasi-small-ball lineup that includes Lin, Chandler, Fields at SF and one of either Smith or Shumpert at SG (depending on what you need). Melo isn’t Marion. He does certain things way better and other things not nearly as well. But that lineup would surround the Lin/Chandler pick and roll with 3 players who can stretch the defense and are capable of finishing or creating plays. It would turn Melo into a screener in a pick-your-poison-pick-and-roll that could be absolutely devastating (we saw a little bit of it’s potential last night). And it would match Melo up against other 4s who have virtually no chance of keeping up with him.
The lineup also has potential ancillary benefits on defense, where Amar’e has devolved into a chiseled statue and doesn’t help consistently on the defensive boards. Effectively, the starting lineup would improve defensively at two positions.
The drawbacks to this plan are both glaring and disturbing in equal parts. It sends a $20 million superstar player to the bench and relegates one of the best scorers of his era to afterthought status. The fallout from a move like that could tear the team apart.
I badly want to believe that Amar’e, coming off a back injury and bereavement leave, can find his way in an offense he knows so well with a PG that suits his game and start punishing defenses the way we’ve been accustomed to seeing over his superstar career. But I’m starting to think it’s not going to happen due to what’s looking like decline in ability and also being asked to sacrifice his game in ways that only detract from it and rarely allow him to do the things that have made him so great.
In addition, Melo may not relish playing an undersized 4. On offense, as much as his quickness and skill offer an advantage against power forwards, his size gives an edge against 3s. His game has always been built on his ability to take smaller defenders apart from the mid-post, an option that would no longer be available to him for large stretches of the game. On defense, teams would likely take him down on the block and look to punish him physically. Anthony’s already shown a propensity for getting nicked up.
Truth be told, it’s much too soon to try a move like this, particularly because the ramifications are so great. If the Knicks decided to bring Amar’e off the bench they might lose him forever. (And if they ever decided they wanted to trade him, sending him to the bench would kill whatever value he has and virtually dash any hopes of doing so.) For now the Knicks need to keep plugging away and try to become the best team they can within the roster’s constraints. But if they keep working at it and the results are just not good enough, the good news is there’s a potential solution already on the roster, even if it comes with some pretty bad news too.